Update 2021: Although it is difficult to cover the topic of human nature and anthropology in Intro-to-Anthro, using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? see this initial lecture on What is Anthropology?
Human Nature & Anthropology
Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . .
This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become–in which they grow up and live out their lives.
—Tim Ingold, Against Human Nature (2006:259,273)
Anthropology began as a quest for answers to some of the deepest issues in Western thought: What is human nature? Is there one nature shared across humanity? Or are there different human types? How much of our sameness or difference comes from our biology? Anthropology has usually emphasized shared human capacities, brought out in specific cultures. However, it is time to go beyond the usual formula. There is no such thing as human nature. There is no core of humanness outside of particular histories and circumstances. Stating anthropological ideas about human nature remains enormously important for addressing contemporary issues: see the 2020 Purpose of Living Anthropologically.
There has been a lot of back-and-forth about these questions. It is a debate that has gone on for centuries. Anthropologists were supposed to provide real evidence, first-hand accounts from all over the world of people living in natural conditions. Anthropology was born as the scientific study of the savages. (An age-old tradition for Introduction to Anthropology is to begin with the 1956 article Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner as a way to explore human similarity and difference.)
The idea of human nature as sameness
On one side of the debate are those who believe we share a fundamentally similar human nature that gets altered by particular environments and cultures. People who take this point of view have argued about how much of our human nature arises from biology versus culture, but they agree on a basic human sameness.
Ideas of basic human sameness are very old. Michel de Montaigne’s reflections published in 1580 discuss how custom or habit can seem natural. Prefiguring the anthropological quest, Montaigne saw savagery as a baseline or natural way of being human. Montaigne saw others as “cannibals,” but this title is deceptive. “The cannibals, then, represent for Montaigne a basic human nature that existed before history and the development of civilization” (Of Cannibals and Custom: Montaigne’s Cultural Relativism, Handler 1986:13). And for Montaigne, again pre-figuring a counter-punctual anthropology it was the Europeans who might actually be seen as barbarous. “We are justified therefore in calling these people barbarians by reference to the laws of reason, but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity” (On Cannibals, 114).
Human nature and the Enlightenment
The idea of human nature as a set of shared human capacities became intellectually dominant during the European Enlightenment, from around the 1750s. The doctrine was known as the “psychic unity of mankind.” Adam Smith, considered by many as the grandfather of free-market capitalism and economics, espoused a shared human nature. Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations:
The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. (1776 :120)
Enlightenment thinkers believed in a human ascent from savagery to civilization, but they believed all human beings were capable of the ascent. Many of them, like Montaigne, also recognized the potential for savagery within civilization.
Plural Human Natures
On the other side of the debate are those who argue for plural human natures. In this view human differences by group are so profound that we cannot see human beings as having one shared nature or capacities. These people say humans are shaped by their environment, but only to a minor extent. Those who emphasize differences in human natures have not cared so much whether that difference comes from biology or culture. They focus on intractable human difference. They make this point most obviously with regard to racial difference, but this idea of intractable difference has also appeared in discussions about rich and poor, or citizens and immigrants. Many continue to use terms of intractable difference when discussing men and women (see one of my most popular posts, Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality: Gender is a Social Construction).
A scary example arguing against a shared human nature, and against the classical political economy of Adam Smith, is Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay “Occasional discourse on the Negro question.” Carlyle labeled political economy the “dismal science” because it posited a basic shared human nature and supported emancipation. Instead, Carlyle espoused fundamental difference and continued enslavement of people of African descent (see Carlyle and the Racist Origins of the Idea that Economics was “the Dismal Science” by Gavin Kennedy).
John Stuart Mill, upholding classical political economy and the Enlightenment, responded in 1850 with a stinging defense of a common human nature. Mill called it a “vulgar error” to think human differences must be differences in nature:
As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock, one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigor in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure–has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other’s development by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another, since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak. (On Liberty; See endnote #1)
Evolution & Human Nature
But Mill’s position was under assault from several angles. In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin supported the idea of stages within human evolution:
With the publication, in 1871, of Darwin’s The descent of man, the doctrine of common human potential–or, as it was then known, of the “psychic unity of mankind”–was brought into contention, challenged by the view that inter-population differences on the scale of civilization could be attributed to anatomical variation, above all in the size and complexity of the brain. (Ingold 2000, 388-89)
Moreover, the specificity of the encounter with Australian Aborigines enabled new lines of racial logic, as Kay Anderson argues in Race and the Crisis of Humanism (2007). The British grew increasingly frustrated and discouraged with their efforts to colonize and civilize the Aborigines. They eventually concluded this must mean an innate incapability of absorbing civilization. For an accessible and moving account, see Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The idea that humans were naturally different by group, especially according to racial classifications, would dominate thinking from the 1850s through the 1930s.
The 1850s-1930s were also the crucial time for the birth of anthropology as a profession and an academic discipline. Anthropology inherited a world already divided into a colonial us-and-them. Anthropology also inherited these questions about human nature. Anthropologists were supposed to sort through these questions using real data from the others.
Some founders of anthropology tried to determine the natural human state and how far each group had progressed along a unilineal path toward civilization. Others argued valiantly against such hierarchies. Some contributed to racialized studies and justified racism. But, as anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues in a brilliant essay, Anthropology and the Savage Slot, the framework or “slot” for anthropological findings had already been shaped by this longer history and philosophy within the West.
As anthropology developed, and then especially with a revulsion to the horrors of the Holocaust and eugenicists trying to breed out bad traits, the notion of naturally shared human capacity returned. Anthropologists enjoined us to think of all humans as having a capacity for culture and language. Ruth Benedict crucially popularized Franz Boas in describing Patterns of Culture. The specifics of that culture and language were provided by the particular historical and cultural circumstances. People re-embraced the “psychic unity of mankind” (Ingold 2006:269). But the psychic unity became a genetic capacity (for more, see section on Human Skulls: Boas Head Shape Studies Revalidated).
Capacities & Culture
Clifford Geertz’s famous 1973 essay, The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man, staked out an anthropological position: “There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture . . . would be unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases” (1973:49). Geertz’s influential essay provides a motto for posters and blogs about the human condition. “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one” (1973:45).
For Geertz, humans begin life with the same natural equipment, but culture provides the rest. Geertz declared the idea of human universals simply not very important or interesting:
What, after all, does it avail us to say, with Herskovits, that “morality is a universal, and so is enjoyment of beauty, and some standard for truth,” if we are forced in the very next sentence, as he is, to add that “the many forms these concepts take are but products of the particular historical experience of the societies that manifest them”? (1973:41)
Although not everyone would go as far as Geertz, for many years Geertz articulated a consensus position. There are some shared human capacities and universals, but all the particulars are provided by culture and history.
There are many possible illustrations of Geertz’s point. Meredith Small’s Our Babies, Ourselves is one example. Babycare is a human universal. The way we care for babies is part of our culture and history. Humans grow and develop within a particular pattern of care, so particular patterns become part of our biology. They then seem natural.
In the last few decades, however, there have been some significant counter-moves and challenges to this consensus:
Human Nature & Race Revival
As discussed further in the section on Race Revival – Attacking Anthropology, there has been a resurgence of people who challenge the debunking of race ideas. The fight against traditional biological racism remains important, and it is no longer possible to rely on outdated references. See section Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race for helpful resources, and the 2012 post Teaching Race Anthropologically.
Human Nature & Human Universals
Somewhat strangely, at the same time as some people have been re-asserting the idea of human differences by group, others have been arguing that human universals and in-built structures are much more important than Geertz and other anthropologists thought. Two examples of this genre include Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and Donald Brown’s Human Universals (1991).
But beyond Pinker’s grandstanding, a true cross-cultural and cross-historical survey reveals there is really not much difference between Geertz and the present. Francisco Ayala specifically tackled the theme of morality in a 2010 paper:
I propose that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature, whereas moral codes are products of cultural evolution. . . . Ethical behavior came about in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself but as a necessary consequence of man’s eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection. That is, morality evolved as an exaptation, not as an adaptation. Moral codes, however, are outcomes of cultural evolution, which accounts for the diversity of cultural norms among populations and for their evolution through time. (Ayala 2010:9015; See endnote #2)
The language is fancier than the Geertz quote for Herskovitz, with references to natural selection and exaptation. But the conclusion–all people have a capacity for morality, but the moral specifics are all about culture–is essentially unchanged.
Moreover, an interesting development in 2011 is the paper “Darwin in Mind” (Bolhuis et al.) which seems to qualify and argue against the assertion of human universals from evolutionary psychology. See the blog-post Darwin in Mind–The End of Evolutionary Psychology for Anthropology.
Finally, with the 2012 publication of The biological myth of human evolution, Jonathan Marks succinctly and beautifully re-states the Geertz position. But Marks avoids the Geertz trap of re-instating the biological and cultural on two sides of a divide:
To try and represent humans as non-cultural beings is a fool’s errand, the residuum of a pre-modern scientific approach to understanding the human condition. This is itself simply an instance of a deeper and broader myth, that humans are scientifically understandable independently of culture–either your own or that of your remote ancestors. To begin the study of humans by imagining that you could free yourself or your object of study from culture, then, would be as regressively anti-intellectual a proposition as any that comes from a modern creationist or climate change denier. Modern studies of human evolution are engagements with the biocultural; the determinism may be weaker, and the interpretative elements may be self-consciously more evident, but we no longer pretend that we are Martians, or that our subjects are automatons. We are humans studying human ancestry and diversity, and there are few, if any, precedents in the history or diversity of life to guide us. (Marks 2012:154; see also the section on Human Biologies and the Biocultural Naturenurtural)
Human Nature Combinationalists
There are many varieties of people clamoring for a reevaluation of the paradigm of biological capacity filled in by a particular culture. In anthropology there is talk of a biocultural paradigm. Others talk of a co-evolution of genes and culture, or interactionism. Some of this is good, like what Marks details above. Other versions are stranger.
One strange but popular version of combinationalism is Matt Ridley’s The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture. For Ridley, human nature becomes a laundry list that includes heredity, instincts, genes, reflexes, associations, history, formative experience, culture, division of labor, development, and imprinting. That’s quite a list, but Ridley insists “you can find all these things going on in the human mind. No account of human nature would be complete without them all” (2004:6; See endnote #3).
Some anthropologists see combinationalism as a way to encourage inter-disciplinary research, four-field approaches, or return to anthropological holism. However, other aspects are more worrying. Talking about gene-culture coevolution often seems to couple an inflated and deterministic notion of genotype to an inflated and deterministic notion of culture. Such approaches compound errors about both genes and culture (see the blog-post and comment stream for Kate Clancy’s 2012 I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach).
Investigations which basically explain and justify current institutions, such as market economies, as rooted in human biology are particularly troubling. In other words, the combinationalists attempt to explain contemporary behaviors via natural selection. This approach short-circuits history, politics, and economics. For several examples, see my 2011 blog-post Anthropology is Necessary.
I also have been on the lookout for an even more noxious combination of these three trends. I term this “ethnobiogeny.” Ethnobiogeny refers to the idea of how ethnically-inflected traits, subject to evolutionary selection, become biological and genetic. For more, see my 2012 blog-post Race Redux.
In any case, it is time for anthropology to take a stronger and more coherent stand than what Geertz outlined:
Anthropology says there is no such thing as human nature.
Here, it is useful to return and ponder the Tim Ingold epigraph:
Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . .
This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become–in which they grow up and live out their lives. (Ingold 2006:259,273; See endnote #4)
Ingold is here echoing and elaborating on his earlier work explicitly challenging the Geertz notion of “natural equipment”: “My point contra Geertz, is that human beings are not naturally pre-equipped for any kind of life; rather, such equipment as they have comes into existence as they live their lives, through a process of development” (2000, 379).
Human beings do not begin as slates. We are not made. We are not baked. We grow. We begin as eggs, already bathed and partaking of an environment. Whatever our nature is does not exist before our growth within a specific environment, beginning with a maternal environment. Eggs grow and transform in the context of a womb. There is no nature apart from our growth, in constant process, in a particular place. All of it is dynamic interaction–change one part and everything else changes. We develop social groups, and those groups may manifest physical differences. But biology is and always will be dynamic interaction and process, not hard-wiring. As anthropologist and primatologist Barbara J. King writes in a 2012 blog-post, titled Are You Hardwired For Compassion? How About Cruelty?: “a discourse that readily invokes a hard-wired human nature does no justice to the complexity of human behavior and its causes.[See endnote #5]
Genes & Human Beings
Genes are important, regulating processes of protein formation. But genes are in the context of a cell, in the context of other cells, in an already structured tissue, in a person, who interacts with other persons and other organisms, in a world.
Genes do not directly interact with what we think of as the human environment. Genes certainly do not directly interact with what we think of as human behavior. Genes are in cells, interacting with the cellular environment and cellular activities. As Zachary Cofran put it in a 2012 blog-post Taking back Epigenetics, “Of course, genes code for how a cell should behave, but we have this tendency to want to extrapolate from the cell to the organism . . . It’s abundantly clear that phenotypes arise out of an inextricably complex series of interactions–between genes, proteins, cells, tissues, environments, etc. These interactions do not occur solely at the genetic (or narrow-sense epigenetic) level.” See also Epigenetics on The Edge, Goodbye to all that
Therefore, any statements that include the words genes and culture should be handled with extreme caution:
Genes do not interact with culture!
Put differently, it will not be enough for anthropology to embrace some kind of combinationalism. We need to move beyond these terms altogether:
The implied essentialisation of biology as a constant of human being, and of culture as its variable and interactive complement, is not just clumsily imprecise. It is the single major stumbling block that up to now has prevented us from moving towards an understanding of our human selves, and of our place in the living world, that does not endlessly recycle the polarities, paradoxes and prejudices of Western thought. (Ingold 2006:276)
Some anthropologists, like Maurice Bloch’s provocative essay “Where Did Anthropology Go? Or the Need for ‘Human Nature'” (2005), claim anthropology lost importance when it stopped making profound statements about human nature. But isn’t the notion that there is no such thing as human nature pretty profound? And pretty important?
Bloch says anthropologists cannot fathom a “straight negation” of human nature (2005:12). But it is time to unite around precisely such a straight negation. Perhaps a press release: Anthropologists Declare No Human Nature. Some prominent anthropologists came pretty close in a “Vital Topics Forum” titled On Nature and the Human in December 2010. From the organizer Agustín Fuentes: “One can easily describe this forum as challenging the concept of a single, or simple, ‘human nature’ as an erroneous and essentialist philosophy” (2010:519 and see also the blog-post summary by Greg Downey, Vital topics forum in AA: ‘Nature and the human’).
Human Nature: Actual Life of Specific People in Specific Places
This does not mean anthropologists have abandoned the field of study. Rather, it moves anthropology to the place Bloch says it should be. That is, an anthropology with “continual insistence on the actual life of specific people in specific places” (Bloch 2005:18). Beyond the academy, this is something we can all do when confronted with banal generalities about humans: insist on the actual life of specific people in specific places. Somewhat ironically, Bloch’s insistence on “specific people in specific places” is the essence of the myth-busting toolkit Fuentes unveiled in his 2012 Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature.
And in fact the emphasis on specificity is not just true for human beings. Biological anthropologist Patrick Clarkin reports similar findings from across the animal world in a 2012 blog-post Biology: The Science of Exceptions. “If there is no single way of being a bonobo, then there is no single way of being a human either.”
Which is a great way to begin the next section on Evolution and Natural Selection, Anthropologically.
Endnotes (click note number to return to text)
Note #1. The work of Sandra Peart and David Levy to uncover the human nature and race debate in the history of economics is extremely informative. See The “Vanity of the Philosopher”: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics (2005). However, simply adopting an egalitarian model, especially one emphasizing rational profit maximizing, is not necessarily a point for pride. The vanity of economics has been its customary approval of laissez-faire policies and refusal to address actually-existing inequities. “The analytical egalitarianism of Smith and John Stuart Mill, while rich with goodwill, stopped considerably short of the radical proposals that might seem to follow from its own principles. It was the key to classical opposition to slavery and the base for the classical call for universal education. It went no further. Given its fundamental axioms, analytical equality combined with a utilitarian political philosophy would seem to call for a more radical commitment to material redistribution (Classical Equality: On the Content of Analytical Egalitarianism, Persky 2008:468-469).
Note #2. The basic point of universal capacity with dramatically different cultural particularity–minus the talk of natural selection and exaptation–can be equally well made with Laura Bohannan’s classic article from 1961, Shakespeare in the Bush a staple of Introduction to Anthropology and anthologized in many readers. The things Hamlet considers positively criminal the Tiv consider positively wonderful, upending almost every feature of Shakespeare’s play. Bohannan writes this as an example of how what she considered universal is actually quite particular. However, it can also be read as a tale of universal human capacities for storytelling and morality, but dramatically filled in by cultural particulars.
Note #3. This kind of super-human-nature becomes the basis for anything Ridley wants it to be, universal in some aspects, particular in others, adding up to a defense of free-market capitalism. For a glimpse into lurking problems, see Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist is telling the rich what they want to hear (Monbiot 2010).
Note #4. A related position is to say “the essence of human nature is a brain that has been selected for adaptability and plasticity. It is also in the nature of humans to be fundamentally and intensely social and to exist–always and everywhere–within networks of social relations and webs of cultural meanings that they both shape and are shaped by” (McKinnon and Silverman 2005:17). This approach has advantages, as it does not negate or deny human nature. But the assertion that human nature is plastic-flexible-adaptive-social may also dodge the issue. Some social institutions create inflexible, anti-social humans. Social inequality can make people inflexible and anti-social. If the core of human nature is flexible and social, it would seem such institutions would encounter natural resistance, which is not necessarily the case.
Note #5. Nicholas Kristof’s column At Risk From the Womb (2010) shows how fetal environment is getting more attention. However, there are worrying aspects of this trend. It could become another determinism, as in the phrase “fetal programming.” And, as Kristof’s scary title illustrates, it easily becomes a way to discipline women, another instance of an ongoing blame game. A more fruitful approach can be found in Origins by Annie Murphy Paul. “Prenatal experience doesn’t force the individual down a particular path; at most, it points us in a general direction, and we can take another route if we choose. Imagine water flowing downstream: prenatal influences might dig a canal, so to speak, making it easier for the water to flow one way rather than another. . . . We may be able to channel our fates in a different direction. The theory of fetal origins ought to contribute to complexity, not reduce it” (2010:195). Daniel Lende’s blog-post Fetal Origins: In the Womb, In the News is a very helpful review of the research, literature, and press coverage. Lende points to anthropologists Christopher Kuzawa and Elizabeth Quinn, Developmental Origins of Adult Function and Health: Evolutionary Hypotheses (2009). Kuzawa’s work is important for Clarence Gravlee’s How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality (2009) discussed in the section on Race Becomes Biology. For a 2011 example of Kuzawa’s work, see the blog-post Testosterone Anthropology.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Anthropology and Human Nature: Human Beings in Process” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/biological-anthropology/human-nature/. First posted 2 July 2011. Last updated 16 June 2020.